A lifeline in troubled times

An energetic "Three Sisters" at Northwest Classical and a "Lifeboat" from disaster at Corrib ride the rough waters of a world out of tune

It’s a clumsy thing, this Three Sisters, chafing and halting and bumping into itself, tripping over its own feet, taking pratfalls, landing on all the discordant notes. And that’s a good thing.

Anton Chekhov’s great play, as it’s being performed in the tight little corners of the Shoe Box Theater by Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative, is all about the clumsiness of the human soul, the way things don’t connect, the abruptness and disconsolation of yearning and desire, the matter of enduring even when life seems unendurable, the way that people seem compelled to snatch unhappiness from happiness’s jaw. Like life itself it’s sometimes funny and sometimes foolish and sometimes heartbreaking, and to get inside such essential truths it takes on a bumptious, jangling rhythm, like a Bartok or Stravinsky or Ornette Coleman score. Things don’t fit – or they do, but not the way you expect – and that’s the glory of it all.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

This production is Patrick Walsh’s baby — he directs and co-produces and adapted Chekhov’s script — and it’s something of a triumph. Chekhov and his great director Stanislavski used to argue about the nature of his plays. They’re comedies, Chekhov insisted. They’re tragedies, Stanislavski replied. Walsh’s production reveals Three Sisters as something beyond both: funny and tragic and existential to its core; a play beyond summation, an immersion in the chaos of life, a place where love is everything and everything isn’t enough.

There is the little backward regional town, of course, only somewhat brightened socially by the billeting of an army battalion, and the three sisters of a tentative gentry, trapped by their position and estate and longing for the sweet sophistication of Moscow, which recedes into inaccessibility as the play progresses. Olga (Christy Bigelow) is the eldest, unmarried, worried, unhappy in her job at the local high school, burdened by a sense of responsibility for everyone and everything. Masha (Liz Jackson) seethes inside her unhappy marriage to one of the teachers, Kulyigin (Heath Koerschgen), who worships her and suffers for it, pretending not to notice her dalliance with one of the officers. Irina (Dainichia Noreault), the youngest, is being courted by the Baron Tuzenbach (Sam Levi), a good match whom she doesn’t love; and hovered over jealously by the strange and imbalanced officer Solyoni (Paul Susi), who even in this quietly combustible company seems a loose and lighted cannon.

Fine support across the board comes from a cast of good performers who seem fully committed to the awkwardness of the thing. Tom Mounsey is a bounty of thwarted hopefulness as the lieutenant colonel, Vershinin; Chris Porter is a beaming, broken clown as the doctor Chebutykin, who at one point stumbles onto the stage in his dirty long johns (costumes are by Jessica Kreuze Bobillot) like a dazed Lear wandering the heath. Mickey Jordan as the sisters’ brother Andrey, whose dreams of becoming a professor in Moscow have been crushed (and who has a gambling problem to boot) flashes between obsequious and snarky, and Isabella Buckner as Natasha does a nice turnaround from clumsy outsider to shrewish social climber after Natasha marries Andrey.

Something of a Chekhov celebration is happening in town, with Three Sisters joining Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s Uncle Vanya, which ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson calls a “smashing production” that “locates the clown in Chekhov.” As usual with Chekhov, nothing much happens in Three Sisters except that the world turns, and everyone gets caught in the revolution.

In his director’s program notes Walsh comments that he immersed himself in Chekhov’s complete works beginning on Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the national election that installed Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Doing Three Sisters, he suggested, was a way to deal with the frustrations and fears that Trump’s ascension unleashed: “I, much like Masha in the play, sometimes felt like I was stuck in a world that cared little for science, books, or empathetic feeling. What can any of us really do?” Reading this, I worried that I was about to sit through some sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a political message stitched messily onto the corpse of a very different sort of play.

That’s not at all what happened. Instead, Walsh found the deep unease at the core of Chekhov’s play, and let it speak for itself. There is much talk in Three Sisters of a better future somewhere over the horizon, and an implicit recognition that that might be a pipe dream, and an unstated assumption that the political is a reflection of a deeper state of being in the culture. That deeper level is what interests Chekhov, and Walsh. There’s a bit of Beckett to this play and this production: I can’t go on; I must go on.

The miracle of Chekhov is that, as bare as he lays his characters’ failures, he also believes in the power of love. In a time of national crisis it’s something to remember. There is an aching of the soul, and there is an unlikely balm. Watching Three Sisters in the tiny Shoe Box, which has seats for an audience of maybe 35 and where the performers sometimes seem to rise right out of the crowd, I found myself looking around at faces – the actors’, and my fellow audience members’ – and they seemed to meld. All of us were in this thing together, rapt and ungainly and attentive and intensely human. Whatever this current mess of a public existence is, this unthinkable unfolding script, we’re in the middle of it. It won’t stay put. Something’s gotta give.

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Three Sisters continues at the Shoe Box Theater, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland, through Jan. 28. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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Britt Harris and Kayla Lian in “Lifeboat.” Photo: Adam Liberman

CORRIB THEATRE, THE ADVENTUROUS small Portland company that specializes in works by Irish writers, has just opened Nicola McCartney’s two-hander Lifeboat in a co-production with Northwest Children’s Theater, which makes sense: The play, which is inspired by an actual disaster at sea, is about two teen-age girls who survive a harrowing 18 hours clinging to the rope on a lifeboat after the ocean liner transporting them from Britain to Canada is sunk by a German U-boat torpedo during World War II, and it won the TMA Equity Award for best new show for children and young people in 2002. The show is being performed in Northwest Children’s Theater’s little basement space, a tucked-away spot that neatly simulates the closeness of the lifeboat.

The play’s two actors, Britt Harris and Kayla Lian, portray young Beth and Bess, respectively, and everyone else who wanders briefly into the story, from parents to siblings to sailors and more. One heads eagerly toward North America; the other is reluctantly leaving home for safety during the wartime years. They become close friends quickly aboard ship, the SS City of Benares, which was evacuating children to Canada when it was sunk 600 miles off the coast of Ireland on Sept. 17, 1940, killing 260 people, 87 of them children. Eleven children, among them Beth and Bess, survived. As they float among the debris, clutching fiercely at their lifeline, they watch dozens of others slip helplessly beneath the waves.

There is humor, and sentiment, and heartache, and adventure in this tale, which suggests neatly that sometimes courage and endurance amount to the same thing, and which makes multiple time- and space-leaps that Harris and Lian and director Avital Shira make easy to follow. The play has the elemental setup of a thriller: Will they survive, against the odds?

Shira sets up her Lifeboat almost as a dance, with a flurry of nervous movement, always pushing forward, always making leaps, always gesturing and exclaiming, and the two performers advance the story crisply and cleanly and energetically. But for all that action, and the sheer bravura of the performances, which on Friday evening kept the audience engaged, something seemed missing: The still center to the thing. There must have been a lot of down time for Beth and Bess during those 18 hours after the wreckage, a lot of silent endurance; both a numbness and a searching of the soul. To work most effectively, it seems to me, this story needs that sort of quiet interiority: time and space to let the awe and terror settle in. Beth and Bess weren’t swimming briskly across the Atlantic. They were hanging on, literally and spiritually, for dear life. It would’ve been good to feel that – to let the characters float but the existential import sink in.

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Lifeboat continues through Feb. 4 in the basement theater of Northwest Children’s Theater, 1819 N.W. Everett St. in Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

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